Can Iran broaden its healthcare appeal?

 

Despite what you read in the press or on the internet, Iran feels quiet and safe

Travellers landing in Tehran, Iran’s biggest international airport, will witness a big, busy city of 14 million people (swelling to 16 million people during the day as many more people travel into Tehran for work). While the country has gone through serious hardships, travellers will also be aware of Iran’s great Persian history. In many of Iran’s cities, beautiful blue tile mosques can be seen alongside poor quality, old brick buildings and new modern building blocks under construction.  

Healthcare and medical travel sector development

Along with construction sector investment, there has been an increasing interest in healthcare development and medical tourism over the last few years.

The Iranian healthcare sector takes pride in promoting their doctors’ capabilities and their achievements. Between 1990 and 2015, for example, Iran was one of the best performers in the Middle East and North Africa region in absolute reduction of child mortality rates (according to the Lancet Global Health).

Salaries in the healthcare sector are low and are affected by currency fluctuation. While it’s well known that Iran suffers from a shortage of doctors and nurses, lower overhead costs mean that Iranian healthcare providers can offer treatments to international patients at highly competitive rates.

Iranians are well known for their progressive thinking, high level of education and hospitality to foreigners.  An Iranian family will open its door to a foreigner for a cup of well-prepared Iranian tea with saffron.

This combination of scientific and healthcare development, treatment pricing and hospitality has led to the launch of a number of medical travel agencies in Iran, mainly working with medical travellers from neighbouring countries but also supporting some Russian-speaking and English-speaking patients. 

Mohammad Jahangiri, President and Diako Abbasi, Board Secretary of the Iran International Healthcare Association, are now making concerted efforts to co-ordinate healthcare providers and promote health tourism to the country.  The level of participation by healthcare providers at this recent medical tourism ‘confrobition’ reflects their determination to demonstrate that Iran offers quality medical, health and wellness services.

During the event, Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, claimed that the number of foreign nationals travelling to Iran to receive medical care has "increased tenfold over the past decade to reach 300,000 annually".  While he gave no official source for this claim, Harirchi also said that Iran has set its sights on becoming the region’s medical tourism hub.

Medical tourist sources for Iran

Iran already welcomes international patients from Iraq, Azerbaijan and Persian Gulf countries.  There is also untapped potential in persuading the Iranian diaspora living in other countries to travel home for treatment. A recent article in India’s Tribune, citing Iranian Embassy officials in India, says Iran is also considering the easing of visa requirements for China, and is planning a major push in India.

Proximity, cultural and religious and lifestyle similarities make it easier for some Arabs to feel more comfortable in Iranian hospitals than going to Europe or Asia for treatment. In addition, in most Iranian educational institutes, Arabic is taught as a second language, so eliminating the potential language barrier risk. 

Treatments and prices in Iran

Arguably, with such a big market of Arab speaking countries, Iran might not need initially to target European or American patients.  However, from conversations I had with local hospitals and medical travel agencies while I was in Iran,  some Western patients come due to the lower prices of some treatments. Prices, provided by Iran medical travel agency Treata-mt.com, include:

  • US$1,480 - nose reshaping
  • US$2,000 - face lift
  • US$1,800 - abdominal fat removal
  • US$2,500 - breast augmentation
  • US$3,300 - gastric sleeve
  • US$4,000 - gastric bypass
  • US$110 - radiotherapy
  • US$8,500 - open heart surgery
  • US$5,700 - spine surgery
  • US$12,500 - kidney transplant
  • US$3,000 - knee replacement
  • US$3,400 - IVF

(Source: Treata).

In addition to promoting medical treatments to international patients, Iran is also popular for its hot springs and medical spa services.

Iran medical sector development risks

A medical traveller must be prepared to accept that all transactions take place in cash, as credit cards are not accepted by most companies and hospitals. Travellers also need to factor in visa costs to Iran, at €75/US$90.  Female medical travellers should keep their head covered in public, due to the Iranian protocol, and all body skin should be covered.

The Iranian healthcare providers face various difficulties in marketing their services abroad, not least that social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook, which offer fast and easy communication with potential patients from other counties, are not available in Iran. Almost all popular instant messaging applications (Viber, WhatsApp, Messenger) do not work in Iran, and access to Instagram is expected to cease soon. 

Earlier this year, the Head of the Medical Tourism Department at the Ministry of Health was quoted in the Tehran Times saying that the biggest problem for medical tourism in Iran is brokers who provide services to medical travellers without having the required licenses. Another risk facing international medical tourism agencies sending people to Iran is that they could run into legal trouble due to US sanctions and the conflicting EU laws.

For further analysis of the medical travel sector in Iran, visit the IMTJ Country Profile.

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